(John Bretschneider / Staff)
DUBAI — Experts and analysts are expressing skepticism of a reported deal to transfer islands near the Strait of Hormuz from Iran to the United Arab Emirates, stating that such a transfer would face “huge obstacles.”
A high-level UAE government source told Defense News last week that UAE and Iranian officials have engaged in secretive talks since June over the island situation, with the help of the Omani government.
“A deal has been reached and finalized on the Greater and Lesser Tunbs,” the source said. “For now, two of the three islands are to return to the UAE while the final agreement for Abu Musa is being ironed out.
“Iran will retain the seabed rights around the three islands while the UAE will hold sovereignty over the land,” he said. “Oman will grant Iran a strategic location on Ras Musandam mountain, which is a very strategic point overlooking the whole gulf region.”
Two days after Defense News posted a story on its website, the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied any accord over the disputed Islands.
“The Iranian embassy in Abu Dhabi said in a statement that the news carried by a number of Arab websites regarding the three Iranian Islands in the Persian Gulf is baseless and fabricated,” reported the Islamic Republic News Agency.
A UAE government spokesman could not be reached for comment. A US State Department official said: “Throughout the duration of this issue, the United States has supported a peaceful resolution between the United Arab Emirates and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and the Lesser Tunb islands.”
The official deferred to UAE and Iran for information on any agreement.
“The fact that the Iranians have used the islands as a way to appeal to the UAE is remarkable,” said David Andrew Weinberg, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “There are enormous obstacles for such a deal to be worked out and the Iranian domestic equation is not the only factor.
“You have to keep in mind what Yousef al-Otaiba [UAE ambassador to Washington] said when he referred to the UAE military for the last 40 years — [they] wake up, dream, breathe, eat, sleep the Iranian threat,” he said.
Weinberg added that any ambitious initiative has to have “at least a yellow light” from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“If he does agree, his intentions [have] to be taken into account, which would be to divide the [Gulf Cooperation Council] by allying with the UAE and Oman over Saudi [Arabia],” he said. “If Tehran is giving the islands back, you better bet that security officials and folks in Abu Dhabi are in good view of the Iranian strategic interests.”
Oman’s role has been described by the high-level source as very important in the next period.
According to the source, Iran would be given access to the strategic Ras Musandam peninsula overlooking the Strait of Hormuz and in return, Oman would receive free gas and oil from Iran.
The agreement was finalized on Dec. 24, the source said, during the visit of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman.
The strategically located islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs are close to the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil chokepoint. The islands were occupied by Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pehlavi less than 48 hours before the declaration in 1971 of the establishment of the United Arab Emirates.
The largest of the three Islands, Abu Musa, had been under joint administration of Iran and the emirate of Sharjah, while the Greater and Lesser Tunbs belonged to the emirate of Ras al Khaimah, according to official UAE records.
Last year, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command inaugurated a naval base on Abu Musa. The source stated that the Iranian military on Abu Musa has started to stand down.
“They are in the process of destroying their bunkers on the island,” he said.
Furthermore, a senior US military official in December said Iran has moved a squadron of Su-25 fighter jets off Abu Musa.
After the recent announcement of the P5+1 interim nuclear deal, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed visited Tehran to discuss the islands issue, the source said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came to Abu Dhabi the following week to meet with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan and other senior leaders to further cement an agreement, he said.
The source added there is a fear of a violent backlash in Iran to the deal.
According to Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, anything is possible at this point.
“Over the past few years, we have seen amazing and unprecedented developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa region, including the rapprochement between the West and Iran,” he said.
Karasik added that the region is witnessing a realignment. “It is clear that there is a realignment that is occurring that challenges conventional thinking regarding key issues surrounding the [Arabian] Gulf littoral,” he said. “I think that in the near future, we may see events occur that we may have not thought was possible regarding boundaries and territories.”
The physical boundaries created since the Sykes-Picot era of World War I, Karasik said, may lead to adjustments in some of the disputes within the region. “Let’s see what will occur in the coming months as the Iranian interim [nuclear] agreement is coming into a comprehensive one.”
But Weinberg said giving Iran a foothold on the other side of the strait would present a major threat. “The positioning of Iranian assets on the [Ras Musandam] peninsula, which is an important economic gateway, can affect the global community and could be viewed as a global threat.”
However, he said he could see why Khamenei or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps could regard that as an asset, especially in a tradeoff. “But what would it be? A military base, a commercial presence, a listening post, this would define many things.”
Weinberg said that Oman aligning its economic interests with Iran will be viewed with trepidation by Saudi Arabia and the West.
Karasik said the Iranian-Omani relationship is unique. “If the Omanis hypothetically want [to] give some type of rights to the Iranians like a port or a piece of land, that’s really up to them,” he said. ■